Jun 6, 2012

Oral Roberts refuses

Oral Roberts, as presented by Oral Roberts, is completely incapable of doubt. He's hermetically sealed against those kinds of second thoughts that start out "or ..." and map out alternative explanations, counter-narratives counter to one's own account of self.

He can't think that way. Won't think that way. In his version of himself that's not who he is, and he can't/won't/doesn't entertain alternatives or hypotheticals.

If there ever were any doubts, they've been excised from the self presentation of his autobiography, Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry. There's just one small nod in the first few pages of the book to acknowledge self questioning, and that's to dismiss it from the start. He doesn't second guess himself, he writes, because he doesn't allow himself to second guess himself. Because he doesn't believe in it: "Of course, there are times I am assailed by doubts, but I made up my mind a long time ago to cultivate the ability to doubt my doubts and believe my beliefs" (italics original).

Doubting one's doubts does not make for a great autobiography. Of course autobiographies can be self-haigiography as easily as full confession, exercises in self-justification just as much as self-interrogation. But either way, the literary form does require one explain.

And it's hard to explain things you think need no explaining.

It's hard to say "this is why I did what I did" if you can't imagine having done otherwise, can't entertain any question about your course of action and can't conceive -- just literally can't think it even possible -- of reasonable objections to what you did.

This leads to the most frustrating episode in his autobiography.

This is Roberts explaining -- or, rather, not explaining -- how God told him he had to raise $8 million in a three month period or die.

This is the big controversy and scandal of Roberts' life and ministry. This is where, if you think Roberts is a huckster, a creepy charlatan swindling old ladies out of their social security checks, you say, see! This is where, even if you believe in miraculous healings and think divine power does manifest sometimes in human hands, and God does speak to people, you might still pause with a question.

If you're critical of Roberts or a Roberts-defender, this is where you're critical and where you're defensive (respectively).

Because the easiest way to explain this fund raiser is God-invoking fraud.

So it would make sense, then, that Roberts would spend some time explaining what happened here, offering his defense and telling his story.

But he doesn't. He won't. Or can't: to try to explain would be to admit it needs explaining, which would be conceive of doubt, and to be able to see why some would see this as an act of charlatanism, or really crass blasphemy as form of fundraising.

Instead what we get is this:
  • "... five years after the City of Faith [a massive, expensive hospital/prayer complex] had opened, we had dropped behind $8 million in carrying on all our medical enterprises."
  • "The Lord spoke to me near the end of 1986 and said, 'I told you to raise $8 million to carry on My medical work. You have from Jan. 1 to March 31 to get it done. If you don't, then your work is finished, and I am going to call you home.'"
  • "Many charismatic ministers flew in daily to stand with me in prayer. They knew I would never falsely report words from God."
That last comment is the full extend of his defense: "They knew I would never falsely report words from God." With this, he takes refuses even the question. Those who know, know, and those who don't shouldn't be taken seriously.

I don't know if this is how Roberts acted in life, but in his biography, this seems pretty standard. He appeals, everywhere, ultimately to having heard God, and to his own character and track record. In every case, these proofs are either entirely irrelevant or exactly what's being questioned. The ground he offers to those who would believe him, ultimately, is just his own assertions.

Its not surprising, of course, that he thinks he did the right thing. Nor that he resents being asked to explain. It's frustrating, though, that he can't even bring himself to see or allow himself to see how reasonable, charitable, sympathetic and believing people might be uneasy with this claim God said this. That others might have doubts he can't have.

His message to those who would believe him, but hesitate, is just simply doubt. Doubt your doubts. Respect. And believe.

I thought there'd be something more than this, when Roberts came to this episode in his life. But now I wonder what I was expecting. What defense or self-justification did I think he could offer, beyond the insistence, "God told me"?